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Onion Lake Cree Nation ‘left to defend for ourselves’ amid gang, drug-related activity: OLCN

Gang and drug-related violence is shaking Onion Lake Cree Nation - which was under a state of emergency earlier this year – and the OLCN leadership is upset with the seeming lack of help from the federal government.
Onion Lake

Gang and drug-related violence is shaking Onion Lake Cree Nation - which was under a state of emergency earlier this year – and the OLCN leadership is upset with the seeming lack of help from the federal government.

“We are left to defend for ourselves,” said Philip Chief, director of operations for OLCN.

“We have on-going active gangs and limited resources.”

He said Onion Lake RCMP is stretched thin dealing with the violence plaguing the community.

The RCMP Crime Reduction Team was sent to Onion Lake Aug. 12 to 16 to help reduce gang activity. The RCMP CRT members collaborate with communities and partner agencies to reduce gang violence and activity.

Tuesday morning OLCN leadership met with Indigenous and Northern Affairs Canada.

“Hopefully we get a positive outcome from Indian Affairs this morning,” said Chief in an interview Sept. 1. “The next step is to make our way back to Ottawa. We need to do something.”

Chief said many First Nations communities are battling the same drug and crime-related issues.

“The federal government seems to be ignoring this. It’s not just us. It’s a common trend in First Nations communities, so much lack of funding.”

Chief said OLCN - and First Nations communities - need more funding for health, wellness and education, and not just crime prevention.

OLCN used more than $1 million of its own money for additional support for housing and health care to deal with it’s addiction and gang crisis.

Chief said some First Nations communities aren’t able to do this.

“We are obviously an oil resource community so we rely on revenue generated from that. But those (funds) should be going to support other programs. The federal government needs to step up.”

OLCN declared a state of emergency Jan. 22, 2020, after gang-related violence and drug activity.

On Jan. 21 the community of Onion Lake experienced what are believed to be drug and gang related occurrences. In the early afternoon, RCMP were involved in a high-speed chase through the community. Within a few hours of the chase, the body of a missing man was discovered by a search and rescue crew combing an area situated near OLCN.

Later the same evening, after a hockey game at the OLCN Arena, a stolen vehicle lost control while speeding and drove into the parking lot of the arena, colliding with the side wall of the building and causing extensive damage. Local officials found what is believed to be gang-affiliated graffiti inside the vehicle involved in the collision.

Over a two-month period there were three deaths directly related to drugs and gang activity on OLCN, as well as numerous high-speed chases and violent crimes.

“The RCMP are working hard and trying their best but they need more help,” said OLCN Okimaw Henry Lewis when declaring a state of emergency in January. “Their (RCMP) resources are stretched too thin and our community needs the support of both levels of government before it gets worse.”

Lewis said OLCN needs the federal and provincial government to create a gang strategy, increased policing services, external gang units and whatever else is necessary to help OLCN residents feel safe.

OLCN set up check stops and roadblocks. They increased their security force from seven to 36 and went from two running security units to nine. They boarded up more than a dozen suspected meth houses and drove out suspected gang members.

Earlier this year OLCN submitted a request to the federal government under Jordan’s Principle to support their health model. OLCN met with Indigenous Services Canada to discuss funding for Indigenous Early Learning and Child Care, housing and the state of emergency. Jordan's Principle makes sure all First Nations children living in Canada can access the products, services and supports they need, when they need them.

Okimaw (Chief) Henry Lewis took a living document to Marc Miller, minister of Indigenous Services in Ottawa in January.

OLCN leadership went to Ottawa at the end of January to ask Indigenous Services Canada for an addition $15-16 million in funding to fight drug and gang related activity. More counsellors are needed as well as health services staff.

“We took a $15 million package to the minister,” said Chief, adding that the government has provided OLCN with $170,000 for detox treatment.

“That funding has come and gone.”

OLCN has houses in desperate need of repair.

“We are trying to fix them up using our own resources. We injected $500,000 for our own housing and that doesn’t even look at the list of houses we have, about 150 plus houses that require renovations."

Chief said that doesn’t include the boarded up homes that have to be specially cleaned due to meth. After declaring a state of emergency earlier this year OLCN drove out suspected drug dealers and boarded up about 15 meth houses.

“Those ones are now boarded up and we are identifying a special way of cleaning those. You literally have to gut these houses out.”

In the meantime, they have created sub-committees to tackle various issues. They have started youth initiatives and programming.

“We are getting people the help they need. We are doing what we can. There is much more we can do and those are the challenges that more funding can assist with.”

OLCN’s Native Justice department is working on several plans. One aspect is installing wireless video surveillance cameras at key locations throughout the community.

OLCN has three townships spanning 188,000 acres. About 2,408 of the band’s 4,003 members live there.

“OLCN is very vast in terms of size,” said Chief, adding that they often didn’t have the manpower to monitor all access points during the state of emergency.

Blockades may go back up

“With the shooting this past weekend the leadership gave the mandate for administration to look at the budget and bring back blockades we had during the state of emergency.”

On Aug. 29 a 35-year-old man was shot multiple times in front a store on Onion Lake Cree Nation. The man was taken to Lloydminster Hospital with non-life threatening injuries. Maidstone RCMP later found the car engulfed in flames in the Maidstone area.

To manage the surge in capacity for mental health supports the federal non-insured health benefit program committed to three additional full-time employees for local therapists and operating expenses on OLCN. In addition, the federal government’s Substance Use and Addictions Program (SUAP) confirmed at least three years of funding for mental wellness and detox.

OLCN bought a 49-person dormitory this spring from a camp service out of Alberta. The trailers will provide immediate safe homes for those wanting to get out of gangs and break addictions.

Earlier this year OLCN leadership teamed up with Onion Lake RCMP to release gang awareness prevention resources.

The Gang Awareness and Prevention (GAP) project was developed and implemented by an RCMP Community Program officer in consultation with the community including chief, council, elders, youth, parents, former gang members and service providers.

Information booklets and posters are available in English, French, Cree, Michif, and Dene. There are five videos with each one focusing on specific messages for community members. An information booklet was developed specifically for parents and caregivers.

Public Safety Canada and Indigenous Services Canada were contacted for comment.

OLCN is on the Saskatchewan-Alberta border located about 50 kilometres north of Lloydminster, Sask.